PHOENIX — Five years ago, Hunter Azure gave up wrestling.
After a stellar high school career that included four individual state titles at Poplar and a few promising years at MSU-Northern, injuries forced him to walk away from the sport where he had experienced such high highs.
The moment was a rare low.
“I tore both ACLs and the meniscus in both knees, I had hand surgery,” he recalled. “I felt like it set me back.”
But Azure had a lot left in the tank.
“I had so much more in me that I needed to give out,” he said. “After I recovered from some injuries, I was feeling great. I always wanted to fight, and I knew I could do it, so I signed up for an amateur (MMA) fight in Montana one weekend and fell in love.”
Azure was hooked. He took more fights, started racking up wins and eventually moved to Phoenix to train full time at the prestigious MMA Lab alongside other top-level fighters. It was there where he added jiu-jitsu and striking to the wrestling that was already in his combat-sports repertoire.
Once he turned pro, he had transformed into one of the brightest MMA prospects in the country. And next week, he’ll take the next step and compete on Dana White’s Contender Series, with an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract on the line. It’s the same platform that launched Helena’s Sean O’Malley to national fame.
“It’s a big opportunity, that’s for sure. Something I’ve been training for since I started, and the dream is finally starting to come true, the first step of it at least,” Azure said. “My training camp is probably the best it’s ever been. I’m just trying to keep myself calm and relaxed about it and take it as another fight because they’re just going to keep getting bigger after this.”
For Azure, it’s a turning point in a life defined by toughness and resiliency. Growing up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation was no cakewalk, but Azure (Assinniboine/Sioux) surrounded himself with good people and focused all his energy into wrestling and working out.
It paid off for him, and he hopes to be a role model for future generations in the community.
“I want to make the best of this opportunity and show people that there’s always a way out,” Azure said. “Whatever your mind wants to do, I mean, if you really want to do it, there are doors that will lead you there. You just got to find those right doors and the right people.”
Azure is undefeated in six professional fights. Next week he’ll fight fellow undefeated bantamweight and prolific striker Chris Ocon (4-0) under the eyes of White, the UFC president. Not only does Azure have to win, but he must impress the most powerful man in combat sports who will determine his fate.
It helps when you have an entire state in your corner.
“Montana is in my heart and always will be,” Azure said. “I love Montana and I want to show everyone there that anyone can do it. There’re opportunities. It’s just been part of my lifestyle, I guess, since I started. Hard work and if you know you’re going to do it, go do it.”
You can catch Azure on the DWCS, Tuesday July 9 at 6 p.m. (MST) on ESPN+.